Bryce Miller: With no Final Four, Bill Walton has more time to work to help others

Tribune Content Agency

SAN DIEGO — If you think Bill Walton is sleeping until noon, binging “Tiger King” on Netflix or reorganizing closets, you have no clue about his fundamental wiring.

Walton is a thinker. He’s a do-er. He’s in constant mental motion, considering the universe and stars right along with the plight of complete strangers. As the coronavirus pandemic grips us, he’s embracing action — not action movies.

Instead of being at the Final Four in Atlanta this weekend, he’s up early to make calls offering a wide net of support. At night, he’s dotting charitable I’s and crossing compassionate T’s.

Life is a treasured gift now and always for Walton, a sometimes-goofy, always-giving moral and philosophical compass.

Asked to list groups he is actively involved with while sheltering in place at his home bordering Balboa Park, the 67-year-old basketball icon ticks off Feeding San Diego, Champions for Health, Father Joe’s Villages and — an organization to protect front-line healthcare workers.

“While I’m extremely grateful (to be healthy), I’m devastated and heartbroken by what’s happening,” Walton said Friday. “People are sick, people are dying, the economy has evaporated and people are alone. Our healthcare workers, police and fire, first responders, all they’re doing, the level of sacrifice and kindness is spectacular.

“You cannot sit on the sidelines and say this isn’t my problem. It’s all of our problem.”

If not for a global health crisis unseen in generations, Walton would have been breaking down matchups and breaking molds for ESPN and Westwood One radio. Sports on pause means the Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer has a well of time and passion to reinvest.

Rather than talking Final Four — and maybe his hometown Aztecs — Walton sees opportunity, not loss.

An example: A lunch for four with Walton in San Diego is one of many items open for bidding in a charity auction to benefit the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The bidding stood at $7,600 as of Saturday morning, the most for a sports-related items. The next is $2,000 for a meet-and-greet with Hall of Fame pitcher Mariano Rivera and tickets to a Yankees game.

“This is the ultimate world team,” he said. “The crisis we’re in makes you super aware that everyone is equal and that everything is connected. We need to protect and help each other. That’s what being on a team is about.

“What are we going to learn out of all this? How do we heal? How do we take this opportunity to implement real, positive change? We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The timing of this weekend links Walton’s past to our shared, uncertain future.

Twenty-five years ago Friday, UCLA won its only college basketball crown in the last four and a half decades. That after Walton and coach John Wooden became cornerstones of a dynasty that swallowed up 10 titles in 12 seasons starting in 1964.

“What you learn by being a champion is the farther away you are from the championship, how hard it is and how much it takes,” Walton said. “When you’re doing it (winning so much), it feels like the natural order of the universe — it’s going to happen.

“That was one of John Wooden’s incredible strengths. He taught you how to think like a champion, how to play like a champion, how to expect to be a champion. You come to understand how hard it is, how fragile it is.”

Walton authored arguably the greatest Final Four performance in history on March 26, 1973. He scored 44 points, the most in title-game history, on 21-of-22 shooting. He actually connected on 25 of 26 attempts, but four were disallowed because of the no-dunking rule at the time.

UCLA cruised past Memphis State, 87-66, for its 75th consecutive victory and seventh straight championship. To this day, Walton has not watched his record-setting game.

Does Walton ever plan to sneak a peek? Nah. That’s not his wiring, either.

“I’m not into that. Never have been,” Walton said. “I don’t like reading about myself. I don’t like watching myself. I like today’s game, today’s challenge, today’s task. If I want to see (that game), all I have to do is close my eyes.”

That mentality is why Walton shifted into high gear, leveraging basketball’s down time to extend a hand for whatever might be needed.

In 2016, I attempted to sort through how many charities Walton and his wife, Lori, support with both time and money. I got to 52. I’m certain I missed some. The capacity to engage and give seems endless.

“It’s like basketball,” Walton said. “Are you going to be the kind of player who waits for the ball to come to you? Or are you going to go get it? We’ve identified the need for food and the economic challenges people are going through.

“I’m ready. Put me in coach.”

It’s about more than yourself, Walton urged. It’s also about mining the courage and resilience of our collective yesterdays.

“My mom is 93. Lori’s parents are 97 and 93,” he said. “They grew up with the (Great) Depression, with World War II. They’ve lived through a lot of stuff. Our challenge now is to find a way forward.”

More Waltons would be a good start.


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